Families Today – Sleep Problems


© 2010 T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Keywords: Health, family, infant sleep, bedtime, naps
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate
Q. My 14-month-old is an excellent sleeper – he has slept through the night since he was 2 months old. However, he goes to bed early and wakes up early (typically 7:15 p.m. to 5 a.m.)
I have tried shifting bedtime a little later but it hasn’t affected wake-up time; instead he is cranky and tired until his morning nap, which shifts earlier.
I don’t want to mess with a full night’s sleep, even if it’s not on my preferred schedule. But I find it hard to make evening plans with the rest of the family.

Do you have suggestions for (a) shifting to a later bedtime and/or (2) explaining to relatives and friends why it’s so important either to turn down invitations or to leave early to keep his sleep schedule?

A. At 14 months, 10 hours of nighttime sleep is about average. A child this age would also need another hour or two of sleep during the day. (Of course, many children are not average, so sleep requirements vary.)

An early-to-bed early riser’s sleep schedule is healthy so long as the child gets the sleep he needs. If you want to try to change his sleep schedule, you will need to shift every sleep-related event – naps, bedtime and mealtimes – in each 24-hour cycle. And you must maintain the pattern consistently, advancing by 10 to 15 minutes each day. The process is like adjusting to a new time zone.

At first, your child probably won’t wake up later and may be tired and cranky. But if you continue this schedule for a few weeks, chances are he eventually will start waking up later in the morning.

At that point you would not advance his bedtimes, naptimes and mealtimes any further. He should still obtain the same amount of sleep at night and during naps. If not, you may need to go back by 15 minutes or so, settling on a new schedule that works best for him.

None of this is necessary unless his current schedule bothers the family enough to make the effort. You may indeed prefer not to “mess” with a good night’s sleep.

You don’t tell us whether your child appears well rested and wide-awake when he is up: important signs of a healthy sleep pattern.

As for the pressure to make your baby conform to others’ schedules, you are his parent. Decisions like these are up to you. You may deflect criticism by making it clear that this is a matter of the child’s biology, not a lack of parental backbone. Assert your authority: “He’s an early bird. Some people just are, and we intend to respect that.”

Others’ opinions will bother you less once you feel confident about your stance on your child’s sleep.

(For more information: “Solving Your Child’s Sleep Problems,” by Richard Ferber, M.D. Simon & Schuster.)

Questions or comments should be addressed to Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Joshua Sparrow, care of The New York Times Syndicate, 620 Eighth Ave., 5th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018. Questions may also be sent by e-mail to: nytsyn-families(at)nytimes.com. The (at) represents the symbol on your keyboard. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column, which may be posted on a Families Today website or collected in book form. Drs. Brazelton and Sparrow regret that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.
(Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is director of Special Initiatives at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the center at www.touchpoints.org.)
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